Magazine article The Spectator

It Was Business as Usual in the Roman Empire on That First Christmas, and It Was Not a Pretty Sight

Magazine article The Spectator

It Was Business as Usual in the Roman Empire on That First Christmas, and It Was Not a Pretty Sight

Article excerpt


The Christmas story comes as something of a shock to those whose knowledge of the ancient world derives from the Roman historians. The gospel world is one of shepherds, innkeepers and mangers, of carpenters, fishermen and widows with their mites, of the lives and expectations of the lowly and destitute in a difficult Roman province on the edge of a vast empire. But Roman historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny were members of the educated, elite, imperial inner ring. Tacitus had been consul and, like Pliny, governor of a Roman province, Suetonius a bureaucrat in the emperor's court in Rome. History for them is power politics played out at the very centre of things, and the plebs feature in it only when their actions have political implications that the imperial court cannot afford to ignore.

But it was one world - SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, meant what it said and, by calling on non-literary sources in particular, we can get some sense of the lives, hopes and fears of that c. 95 per cent of the populus who did not form the Roman educated elite.

Graffiti tell us that some things at least do not change: 'I came here, I had a shag, then I went home,' scrawls one of the last great romantics on a wall in Pompeii. Workers in Pompeii formed co-operatives to support political candidates: graffiti record requests from groups like the fruitsellers, mule-drivers, goldsmiths, carpenters, cloth-dyers, innkeepers, bakers, porters and removers, chicken-sellers, matmakers, grape-pickers and late drinkers (!) to vote for this or that candidate for office. Indeed, even the humblest citizen could approach the mighty emperor with a request and expect a reply. We hear of one such response (many like it survive) from Antoninus Pius to a lowly worker:

If you approach the relevant authorities, they will give orders that you should receive upkeep from your father, provided that, since you say you are a workman, you are in such ill health that you cannot sustain your work.

An epitaph, popular enough for it to be known in two versions, says of the tomb:

All a person needs. Bones reposing sweetly, I am not anxious about suddenly being short of food. I do not suffer from arthritis, and I am not indebted because of being behind in my rent. In fact my lodgings are permanent and free!

The plight of thousands of back-street Romans is summarised in this ironic little text. Shortage of food was an obvious problem; so was ill health, though Rome was not filled with the sick and starving (they died). But accommodation created problems too. It was rented and expensive; overcrowding and violence were commonplace. The historian Suetonius tells us that Augustus derived special pleasure from watching groups of people brawling in narrow city streets. Legal texts tell us of a shopkeeper putting his lantern out on the pavement. A passer-by grabs it and the shopkeeper gives chase. The thief hits him with a lash, and in the brawl the shopkeeper knocks out one of the thief's eyes. We hear of runaway wagons and building materials crushing people to death in the crowded streets.

Even when work was obtained, it was often organised on short-term contracts, especially during the harvest and vintage. We hear of a woman who gave birth while working on a day-contract in a digging gang. Fearful of losing her wages, she hid the child and carried on. She was spotted and, against all expectations, paid in full and sent home by a kindly manager.

The stercorarius (or `night soil man', as he was known well into the Fifties in Britain) had regular, if rather more disagreeable, work. …

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